Teachers need a hand to get a grip on practical science

3rd February 2012 at 00:00
If Scotland wants world-class status in this vital area of learning, it must invest in people, equipment and materials

There is concern that young people do not do enough practical science in school. The Commons science and technology select committee recently published a report which pointedly drew attention to the reasons for this: scarce resources; the "appalling pay and conditions of science technicians", and the need to train science teachers so that they become more comfortable with undertaking field trips. It also highlighted the need for assessments, inspections and rewards for teachers and schools that invest in the practical teaching of science.

I am not a teacher and so never feel terribly comfortable making proclamations about what should go on in the classroom. However, as the director of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, I do find it very easy to value practical science over the sort that comes out of a book. I trained as a research scientist, and for the past 20 years I have worked with the festival, ensuring that people of all ages experience a little of what it is like to do "science for real".

I love watching people "do science" involving real equipment, tools and materials and preferably in the company of someone who approximates to a "scientist". Practical science sessions like these take place during the two weeks of the festival and in over 600 Scottish primaries each year as part of our education programme, Generation Science.

It is not hard for me to eulogise about the virtues of practical science. An evening on the internet can certainly increase your understanding of a subject, but running an experiment or undertaking fieldwork introduces us to the unpredictability of the real world. For example, attempting to measure a star's brightness with a meter that is clearly not working reconnects you to what the world is really like.

The world isn't made of books or internet sites; it is physical, unpredictable and generally difficult to work with. Undertaking experiments starts us down the road to being comfortable with this unpredictability. And the skills you acquire doing this, you take with you to whatever you choose to do later in life. I spent five years in my twenties doing scientific research in microelectronics. The science I learned has been of virtually no use to me since. But the process of solving problems methodically and the acceptance of failure as part of the normal route to achieving something ambitious are things that I embrace daily.

Professor Heinz Wolff, creator and presenter of the Great Egg Race and longtime friend of the festival, would often extol the virtues of practical science - particularly learning to be skilful with our hands. Heinz frequently bemoaned the activities of young people which limited their manipulation skills to a repertoire of thumb-operated keypads and joysticks. Doing real science is often terribly fiddly and it is a great place for the young to develop precision with their hands.

My final argument for increasing the amount of practical science, particularly in secondary schools, is supported by research from the Science Museum London and local reports showing that primary pupils go off science in secondary school for two reasons. They are often asked to repeat work they have already done, and their expectation that they are going to be doing lots of "cool" experiments isn't met. Putting in more lab work and excitement could keep the door to the sciences open longer.

So what can be done to make things better? Certainly, there is a role for inspections and assessments to be adjusted to reward good teaching practice. However, a chemistry lab with no consumable chemicals or a technician is a museum, not a place of inspiration and learning. So if our nation really wants to back world-class science, it needs to spend more, investing in people, equipment and materials. A number of years ago, the Wellcome Trust invested tens of millions of pounds upgrading science facilities at UK universities. This is the sort of initiative I'd hope for - a major investment to make a dramatic step change.

Resources can come from outside schools, too. Scotland is brimming with research labs, science centres, science festivals and universities. Some are compelled to help, and many of the rest are willing to do so. There is a job to be done, mobilising these resources in a "market-led" and efficient way that delivers the best value for schools. This does not really require the intervention of government, just the determination of those who can help, showing leadership.

The Edinburgh International Science Festival is increasingly developing partnerships overseas and this year we staged the first Abu Dhabi Science Festival, attracting over 100,000 visitors. As part of this, we are spending time in foreign schools and observing how they teach science. Most of the time these visits bring home to me how wonderful much of Scottish teaching is. Some encounters, however, reveal the same problems we have; labs in wealthy countries lie poorly equipped with not enough skilled staff to make use of what is there. Others though, for example China, can showcase some of the best labs I have seen, and sitting at the desks are motivated learners. So we have scope to improve, and it is almost certainly those of you reading this article who will have the greatest effect at initiating these changes. The select committee's report is a help, but fundamentally, it looks to me as if we need to each do our bit to generate change.

Simon Gage, Director of Edinburgh International Science Festival.

The Edinburgh International Science Festival runs from 30 March to 15 April, and Generation Science from 30 January to 25 May. www.generationscience.co.uk.

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